Volunteer group taking ‘baby steps’ toward cleaning up Arroyo Grande Cemetery

Drought leaves A.G. cemetery filled with dust, gopher holes and angry loved ones

Upset families of people buried in the Arroyo Grande Cemetery are speaking out about the "eyesore" conditions at the parched property, a year after the cemetery was honored for cutting its water use.
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Upset families of people buried in the Arroyo Grande Cemetery are speaking out about the "eyesore" conditions at the parched property, a year after the cemetery was honored for cutting its water use.

Several months after residents complained of the neglected condition of the Arroyo Grande Cemetery, yellow and red flowers decorate many of the gravestones, succulents have been planted and video cameras monitor the property 24 hours a day.

“Baby steps, but it seems we will get there, and I will make sure of it,” Arroyo Grande resident Miranda Osteen said.

Osteen is part of a grassroots movement to improve the cemetery. She and her group have attended cemetery district board meetings since the summer, pushing for improvements, while balancing the continuing drought’s impact on the landscape and the district’s restricted budget.

The cemetery district, a county special district governed by a volunteer board of trustees, turned off its water in 2014 to help reduce costs and save water in light of the drought. The decision was lauded by the city, but roughly a year later, some visitors were less than happy with the dusty, brown plot of land.

(This week’s rains have been a temporary respite, giving the cemetery a bright green cover as weeds pop up across the property, but once the rain stops it will inevitably turn brown again as the ground dries out.)

It’s time for a big change.

Miranda Osteen, Arroyo Grande

Adding video surveillance to help curb theft of personal belongings placed on gravestones was the work of volunteer Miriam Moustirats, Osteen said.

Moustirats, who routinely posts on the Friends and Family of Arroyo Grande Cemetery Movement Facebook page, researched affordable ways for the cemetery to better police minor crimes like vandalism and theft.

According to district trustee Terry Fibich, Moustirats’ work was the primary reason the cemetery district decided to implement the surveillance, after the district had previously said it would be too expensive.

Fibich said the volunteer group has been responsible for many cosmetic improvements at the cemetery, such as placing flowers on headstones and planting succulents during cleanup days, though the district has also undertaken its own improvements.

Among those is hiring a gopher trapper to help eradicate the cemetery’s extensive gopher problem.

According to Fibich, the trapper has caught about 250 gophers in the past month, including one day in which the trapper caught a total of 24 gophers at the 20-acre property.

“That’s made a noticeable difference,” he said.

Fibich also noted that following some complaints, the district has implemented a policy discouraging workers from driving over headstones, unless necessary for transporting heavy equipment to grave sites. This means visitors will see fewer tire marks across many of the graves.

Though the group of volunteers has worked closely with the cemetery board over recent months to remedy some of the worse conditions, there is still more work to be done, Osteen said.

Many of the gravestones are still covered in dust and dirt, even after several cleanup days aimed at uncovering some of the more neglected sites. Osteen said she is still hoping for the district to completely remove the grass and replace it with drought-tolerant options such as decomposed granite.

“Looks like they are looking into a new direction of possibilities of no more grass, and that’s what I have been asking for, is a solution,” she said. “It’s time for a big change.”

The district will host its regular board meeting Jan. 11 at 2:30 p.m. at the Arroyo Grande Cemetery District office.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie